In contrast, discount airlines continue to spread their wings elsewhere in Asia. Three started flying in Japan this year, including Peach Aviation and local ventures from Malaysia's AirAsia and Australia's Jetstar. Also taking flight in 2012 were Singapore Airlines' Scoot, Thai Airways International's Thai Smile and AirAsia Philippines. Next year, Indonesia's Lion Air plans to start flights on Malindo Airways, a low-cost Malaysia operation, the company said earlier this month.
Even China Eastern Airlines Co. is joining in, although its low-cost carrier is a joint venture with Qantas subsidiary Jetstar that will be based in Hong Kong rather than mainland China.
The Civil Aviation Authority of China hinted in July that it would support budget airlines by loosening price controls. But director Li Jiaxiang stopped short of announcing any major policy reforms.
The measures aren't just aimed at China's private or discount carriers — they also apply to China's state-owned carriers. Analysts say policies are designed to prevent unfettered growth. Authorities clamped down following a spell of supercharged growth during which the number of passengers expanded by 40 percent in 2003-2004. Such red-hot growth puts tremendous strain on pilots and infrastructure such as air traffic control and airports, especially on heavily congested air routes between major Chinese cities including Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
"The market is already growing at 11-16 percent domestically at average fares," said Mario Hardy, a vice president at research firm UBM Aviation. "Imagine if an AirAsia or a Spring was able tomorrow to lower that price by half. How many more people would be travelling?"
Hardy and other experts and industry insiders believe that Chinese authorities will allow the aviation market to open up gradually so that there's enough time to build up the required infrastructure. China is building 82 new airports and renovating 101 others in a five-year plan that runs until 2015.
"Otherwise it will be a mess," Hardy said. "It would be chaos."
Until then, travelers like Ren, the businesswoman and travel blogger, will have to put up with higher prices. Ren is thinking of going to India on her next trip but is disappointed with the limited options. She could fly with Air China at a cost of 4,000-5,000 yuan ($$635-$790) round trip. Or she could pay 2,000 yuan ($320) on AirAsia — but she would need to change planes at AirAsia's home base in Malaysia.
"It's annoying," said Ren. But "life is not perfect and I have no choice. I could not ask for the flight to be both cheap and offer the perfect route."
Researcher Fu Ting in Shanghai contributed to this report
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